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Philosophical Background of the Fifth Century B.C.

From as early as the sixth century B.C., thinkers in Ionia and elsewhere in the Greek world were speculating about what the universe was made of and how it came to assume its present form. These thinkers are conventionally called Presocratics.1 This was the beginning of Greek philosophy ('the love of wisdom'), which first took root in Ionian Miletus, a prosperous city on the coast of Asia Minor. The names of three Milesian philosophers are known to us: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, who are generally called 'the Milesians'. We know of their teachings not first hand from their own works, which have not survived, but only from references to them in the works of Aristotle and other authors. Their main interest as philosophers is indicated by the term commonly applied to the Milesians and later Presocratics in Greek literature: hoi physikoi 'those concerned with nature (physis)'. The physikoi sought the basic substance of the universe, but in addition to science they were also interested in ethics and the criticism of contemporary religion. This kind of speculation was continued in Ionia, Italy, Sicily and elsewhere by Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus and finally by Anaxagoras, who came to Athens in the middle of the fifth century. The greatest contribution of these philosophers was their application of rational analysis to the world, which earlier had been viewed only in mythical terms.

1Socrates is commonly accepted as a turning point in Greek philosophy. As Cicero explains in his Tusculan Disputations: "Socrates was the first to summon philosophy down from the skies ... and compelled her to engage in the investigation of ... moral questions of good and evil" (5.10).

The traveling teachers called Sophists, whose teachings had an enormous influence on the thought of the fifth century B.C., were in general intellectual descendants of the Presocratic philosophers. Perhaps because of the mutually contradictory answers offered by the Presocratics as to the nature of the universe, the Sophists turned from theoretical natural science to the rational examination of human affairs for the practical betterment of human life. This approach to life began to undermine the mythological view of the world evident in poetry with its emphasis on the involvement of anthropomorphic deities in the natural world and in human action. Divine causation was no longer the only explanation of natural phenomena and human action.

Most Sophists were non-Athenians who attracted enthusiastic followings among the Athenian youth and received large fees for their services. Sophists flocked to Athens no doubt due to the favorable attitude of Pericles towards intellectuals. Pericles was a staunch rationalist; he had been trained in music and political affairs by Sophists. He was associated with the great sophist Protagoras of Abdera and two important Presocratics: Zeno of Elea and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. The latter taught that the universe was governed by pure intelligence and his assertion that the sun, moon and stars are red hot stones and not gods led to his prosecution for impiety. Perhaps the best illustration of Pericles's rationalism is a story told by Plutarch of how Pericles, when an eclipse of the sun (generally considered a bad omen) frightened the helmsman of his ship, held up his cloak before the helmsman's eyes and asked him if he thought that this was a bad omen. Upon receiving a negative answer, Pericles then asked the helmsman whether there was any difference between his holding up of the cloak before his eyes and the eclipse of the sun except that the eclipse was brought about by an object larger than the cloak (i.e., the moon). Pericles was no doubt applying knowledge he had obtained from Anaxagoras, who is generally credited with being the first to explain the true cause of solar eclipses. Pericles's rational approach to life and that of his circle of friends was as unpopular as his democratic politics among conservative groups in Athens, but it must have encouraged Sophists from all over the Greek world to flock to Athens as a potentially fertile ground for their teachings.

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Most Sophists claimed to teach arete 'excellence' in the management of one's own affairs and especially in the administration of the affairs of the city. Up to the fifth century B.C. it was the common belief that arete was inborn and that aristocratic birth alone qualified a person for politics, but Protagoras taught that arete is the result of training and not innate. The Sophists claimed to be able to help their students better themselves through the acquisition of certain practical skills, especially rhetoric (the art of persuasion). Advancement in politics was almost entirely dependent upon rhetorical skills. The Athenian democracy with its assembly (ekklesia), in which any citizen could speak on domestic and foreign affairs, and the council of five hundred (boule), on which every Athenian citizen got a chance to serve, required an ability to speak persuasively. The Sophists filled this need for rhetorical training and by their teaching proved that education could make an individual a more effective citizen and improve his status in Athenian society.

Although there were many differences among the Sophists in terms of their specific teachings, it is safe to say that there was a common philosophy which many Sophists shared and which permeated their teachings. The most prominent element in this philosophy was skepticism ('a doubting state of mind'). The skepticism of the Sophists took various forms: phenomenalism, the belief that we can only know ideas present in our mind, but not the objects of perception outside our mind (so that it is useless to make a definitive statement about anything outside our own mind); empiricism, the doctrine that experience, particularly of the senses, is our only source of knowledge; and above all, relativism, the theory that truth has no independent absolute existence, but is dependent upon the individual and the particular situation in which one finds oneself.

The relativity of truth was the basis of Protagoras's rhetorical teaching. He trained his students to argue on both sides of a question because he believed that the whole truth could not be limited to just one side of a question. Therefore, he taught his students to praise and blame the same things and to strengthen the weaker argument so that it might appear the stronger. These techniques are based on the belief that truth is relative to the individual. Arguments on both sides of a question are equally true because those debating a question can only truly know those things which exist in their own mind and therefore cannot make a definitely true statement about objective realities outside the mind (phenomenalism). Truth is what it appears to be to the individual. As Protagoras said: "Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are and of things that are not, that they are not". Since it is not possible to know what is absolutely true, there is only one standard left by which to determine correct action: the standard of advantage (interest, expediency). If an action is advantageous to the individual, then it is good. This idea was sometimes employed by the unscrupulous to justify morally questionable behavior, but Protagoras apparently was opposed to an indiscriminate use of this principle. His belief in the relativity of truth did not prevent him from believing that in making moral decisions one can still distinguish between an action which is morally better and one that is morally worse.

The Sophists were also interested in the cultural development of man as a member of society. The Sophists saw man himself as a product of nature, but society and civilization as artificial human products. On one hand, man is a natural creature subject to certain laws of nature which he cannot help but obey. On the other hand, he lives in a society, the rules and structure of which have no roots in nature and are based only on custom. The distinction here apparent is one between nature (physis) and custom or convention (nomos), a commonplace antithesis in fifth century literature popularized by the Sophists. One of the great controversies of the fifth century was whether the gods, human society and distinctions among human beings such as Greek and Barbarian, master and slave, were the result of physis or nomos, nature or custom. Before the fifth century, human institutions and customs were generally seen as handed down by the gods and part of the natural order of things, but contact with other civilizations began to make it evident that institutions and customs were different among different peoples and introduced the idea of cultural relativism. According to this theory, societies create their own customs and institutions to suit their own peculiar needs and conditions. A graphic example of cultural relativism occurs in Herodotus's Histories (3.38). In order to illustrate the point that everyone thinks his own customs and religion are the best, Herodotus tells the story of certain Greeks at the court of the Persian king who are shocked and disgusted when he asks them how much money they would require as an inducement to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. On another occasion with Greeks present, the king asked some Indians, who in fact did eat their fathers' corpses, what they would take to burn their dead as the Greeks do. The Indians' horror at this suggestion equaled that of the Greeks on the earlier occasion. Herodotus concludes this anecdote with a quotation from the poet Pindar: "Custom is the king of all". This was also the attitude of most Sophists with regard to the origins of the gods, human society and distinctions among human beings. All these were considered by the Sophists as human creations designed to serve specific needs. Thus, there began to grow up the antithesis between man-made law (nomos) and natural law which has its origins in unchanging nature (physis). A modern example of a nomos is the agreement that a red traffic light means 'stop' while a green one means 'go', while an instance of a natural law is the law of gravity. If a legislative body so ordained, red could mean 'go' and green, 'stop'. Under the right circumstances, the traffic light can be ignored with impunity. On the other hand, the law of gravity cannot be repealed by man and compels obedience to itself.

Although the physis - nomos antithesis was common in the teachings of most Sophists, their views of physis with regard to human nature could differ widely. To some Sophists, the realization that all men have much the same human nature required the abolishment of all artificial distinctions among men, such as Hellene and Barbarian, master and slave. Other Sophists saw human nature as an aggregate of man's animalistic inclinations to aggression and domination by physical strength. Human law (nomos) which restricted those inclinations was seen as an artificial constraint contrary to the natural order of things, created by the weaker members of society. This view was the philosophical basis of the rhetorical argument of "the right of the stronger" ("might makes right") which is used by a number of speakers in Thucydides's History and which you will see advanced by the sophist Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic. The Sophists who advocated this argument saw men in the image of animals in the wild and often recommended the animal world as a model for the human. According to this view, any attempt to constrain the natural human tendency of aggression is not only wrong, but useless. Nature overrides any artificial constraints set up by man. Just as in the animal world, the strong will always be victorious over and dominate the weak. Not all Sophists, however, subscribed to this theory. Protagoras believed that men, left to their own natural savage instincts, would destroy each other. In his view nomos, although only an artificial creation of man, enables men to survive and makes possible civilized communal life.2

2In addition to the arguments of advantage and the right of the stronger, a third line of argumentation popularized by the Sophists was that of probability. This argument was especially useful in the court room where the lack of evidence and/or witnesses made a charge difficult to refute. For example, a man charged with assault against a larger and stronger man could argue that it is not likely that he would have attacked such a person. On the other hand, if the man accused of assault were very large, he could argue that a man whose very size would make him a suspect would not be likely to have committed such a crime.

The intellectual revolution fomented by the Sophists also reached into the area of religion. Most Sophists saw the gods as creations of men. In general, Sophists were either agnostic or atheistic and saw the world as operating on the principle of natural rather than divine causation. There was very little room in Sophistic thought for the old anthropomorphic gods. This, of course, is not to say that the gods disappeared from ancient Greek life because of Sophistic skepticism. The Sophists and their students represented an intellectual minority. The average man, who could not care less about these avant-garde theories, distrusted intellectuals and regarded the agnosticism and atheism of the Sophists as irreligious and impious.

Protagoras was an agnostic who claimed not to know whether the gods existed or not or anything about their appearance. Many other Sophists tended toward atheism. The sophist Prodicus taught that men deify those things which are important to human life such as the sun, moon, rivers, springs, bread (Demeter), wine (Dionysus), fire (Hephaistos) and water (Poseidon) and at the same time (somewhat inconsistently from the modern point of view) the discoverers and providers of bread, wine and fire (also called Demeter, Dionysus and Hephaistos). Thus the goddess Demeter was considered simultaneously to be bread and the provider of bread just as Dionysus and Hephaistos were similarly viewed with regard to wine and fire. Another atheistic theory about the origin of the gods is attributed to a certain Critias, an associate of Plato, who was not himself a professional sophist, but whose views were closely allied with those of the Sophists. Critias asserted that the gods were a contrivance of governments to insure that men would believe that everything done on earth whether openly or secretly was seen by the gods and would consequently be discouraged from violating the laws of the state. Otherwise, men, if not detected by other men, could break the laws of the state without fear of punishment. In this theory, belief in the gods brought stability to the state by providing sanction for its laws.

The ideas presented in this brief review of Sophistic teachings are commonplace in the late fifth and fourth century literature. Authors in this course, such as Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Plato, give frequent evidence of the influence of the Sophists. The Sophistic movement represents an intellectual revolution which made educated men look at the world in a very different way. The Homeric view of the world and human events was no longer the only possible one.

To learn more about the ancient authors mentioned in the text above from the Perseus Encyclopedia, click on their names below.

Anaximenes, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Euripides, Herodotus, Pindar, Plato, Plutarch, Pythagoras (5), Sophocles, Thales, Thucydides

Table of Contents > Next Section: Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War


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